April 14, 2015

The Dabbawalas are in the news!

One very popular case study that I encountered during my MBA studies was that of Mumbai's Dabbawalas (http://mumbaidabbawala.in/). Over the weekend, news came out on The Financial Times (link here to the article) that Flipkart (www.flipkart.com) is joining forces with the Dabbawalas to utilize the very impressive and efficient Dabbawala distribution network to distribute packages.

I recall that we studied the Dabbawalas in the following classes: Strategy Implementation, Innovation and Project Management and of course in Global Operations and Supply Chain Management. I don't recall that we had any other case that was discussed as extensively across three different subjects. It goes to show how impressive the accomplishments of the Dabbawallas are in Mumbai.

For those who are unaware, Dabbawalas basically deliver home cooked meals to office workers in Mumbai. They utilize a network of deliverymen who pick-up the Dabbas (or tiffin cans) from homes, put them on the city's trains and then deliver the Dabbas to the designated offices. The same process then happens in reverse to get the Dabbas back home after lunch. What makes the system amazing is that there are very few errors, less than 3.4 errors per million, good enough to make it a six sigma process. All this is achieved with very minimal use of technology. 

At the center of the success is the train and it's stations, which serves as a hub and spoke distribution network. The dedication of the Dabbawalas themselves is also a major key to the success. The Dabbawalas take part-ownership of their own routes and have been known to delivery Dabbas even during heavy rains and flooding. There is ownership and complete dedication to the task at hand for each Dabbawala. There is also a coding system that is used to identify individual tiffins and their destination. But with so many moving parts, it is really amazing how this system works flawlessly day in and day out.

One of the things we discussed in class was how to ensure that the Dabbawalas continue to survive and grow in the years to come. I believe that this partnership with Flipkart is one way to do it. This is basically expanding the service currently being offered to include delivery of packages. As long as this new service doesn't disrupt the current food delivery service, it should go a long way to helping the Dabbawalas grow their revenue streams. 

This is currently only an experiment as only a handful of deliverymen (12 as per the FT article), will participate. This pilot testing will help as the Dabbawalas have been known to resist abrupt changes to the way they do things. And who are we to argue with them? This system has existed for at least 100 years and they have been very successful.

I hope that this little experiment is something that grows for the Dabbawalas. I would love to see their continued success, even as consumer behavior may be changing (people may stop or reduce eating home cooked meals). The Dabbawalas are not just an interesting case study for business school, but a great example of human ingenuity at work. 

What do you think?

Link here to the article from The Financial Times (subsciption required) and link here to learn more about the Dabbawalas